Because it’s there” This was the legendary response by George Leigh Mallory, a legend and mystery interwoven in the history of Mount Everest, when asked what makes him climb it again and again. Considered to be one of the finest mountaineers of his time, Mallory was the first man who had the audacity and courage to assault the world’s highest mountain thrice. Did he succeed before he vanished on the icy slopes in 1924? It is one of the most enduring and tantalising mysteries of Everest lore.
History is different from lore. As the world knows, Edmund Hillary, the gentleman extraordinaire, was the first to the summit. Followed by Tenzing Norgay, the son of the mountain, who knew nothing but climbing, particularly the sacred mountain revered as the Goddess Mother of his Sherpa community, repeatedly, till he was there. On top of the world.
In celebration of 60 years of the first successful ascent, Sumati Nagrath has compiled the ‘Incredible Ascents to Everest’ — a chronicle of the firsts of every kind to have scaled the summit. What is it like to be there? If you pluck someone from sea level and drop him on top of the Everest, he/she will die within minutes. The early climbers spent months acclimatising, plotting the routes to the summit — the unquenched thirst of the adventurers on earth. As the British had lost out in the race to the two poles, they were desperate to scale Everest.
The first three expeditions — in the 1920s — basically belonged to Mallory. To quote him, “What is the use of climbing Mount Everest? It is no use … So if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we can get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy, is after all the end of life.”
And, that is where his life ended. On the icy slopes. In 1924, Mallory and Andrew Irving vanished into thin air just below the base of the final pyramid. Mallory’s body was recovered years later. They have found only the ice axe of Irvine. Those were the days when the climbers had to be content with a rudimentary oxygen apparatus that was thought to be essential in the Death Zone — above 8,000 metres.
“Everest is Everest,” once said Reinhold Messner. In 1978, he along with Peter Habeler turned conventional mountaineering wisdom on its head by climbing it “alpine style” — that is without using supplemental oxygen.
Unquestionably, one of the greatest mountaineers, Messner, two years later, returned to the summit, astonishing everyone by becoming the first person to summit the world’s highest mountain solo.
Is there something in the genes? Son of legendary Japanese skier Keizo Miura, Yuichiro Miura, the first man to ski down the slopes of Everest in 1970, nearly died that day. “What is this Everest of our hearts? What was it that snatched me from jaws of death, back to the world of man? I am a pilgrim again, to trudge the rest of my life toward the distant unknown, seeking this Everest, with this new lease of life granted to me” — Miura reflecting on his miraculous escape from the Bergshrund Crevasse. Thirty three years later, he returned to summit the peak aged 70.
On May 16, 1975, 35-year old Junko Tabei from Japan became the first woman to stand on the summit of Mount Everest. A very frail child, she suffered from weak lungs. “Technique and ability alone do not get you to the top — it is the will power that is the most important. This will power you cannot buy with money or be given by others — it rises from your heart,” Tabei said.
“Twenty years ago when I went blind, it was tough to even find the bathroom. Now, that I have climbed Mount Everest, well, I guess I’ve come a long way,” said Erik Weihenmayer, who redefined the rules by becoming the first blind person to touch the top of Everest.
In May 2005, 76-year old Min Bahadur Sherchan became the oldest person to summit. “When I looked down there were only white, shiny clouds and small snow-covered peaks. At that moment, I felt like I was on the top of the world,” he described. Tamae Watanabe was the oldest woman to summit at 63 in 2002. Ten years later, she broke her own record, despite a broken back in between, to summit again. Even now, Jordan Romero can’t vote or can’t drive. In 2010, as a 13-year old, he became the youngest person to reach the summit.
The Sherpas, as the book says, are the unsung heroes of Himalayas. Centuries of inhabiting the snow mountains have given them the resilience to high altitudes and it was on their backs that every expedition till date has been taken up. Naturally, they own most of the records. Babu Chirpi Sherpa has spent a record 20 hours on the summit, Ang Rita has scaled it 10 times and Apa Sherpa, a record 21 times in as many years, climbing it twice in 1992.
The book also has space for Elizabeth Hawley who landed in Nepal in 1960 never to leave it. All her life, she has been chronicling Himalayan expeditions. That she doesn’t like to trek but prefers the comfort of her first floor apartment is a small nugget from the book that ends with a note of concern about commercialisation of expeditions to Everest, leading to more deaths in the past few years.
After being part of every expedition described in the book, you still wonder what’s with this mountain madness. In his foreword, Tom Whittaker, the first person with disability to have climbed Mount Everest, says, “The driving force behind mountaineering is humankind’s need to sustain the soul through adventure. Keep climbing to your dreams.”
(Aravind Kumar is an assistant editor with The Hindu)